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(Photo courtesy of Stanford Athletics)

From Pommel Horse to Mustang

Matt Wilce learns how Olympic gymnast Steve Hug ’70 came to Tokyo to train with Japan’s gold medal winners.

Hug in his senior photo in ’70

“I started gymnastics at 10, though I didn't know it was a sport for the first year or two. Then I saw the ’64 Olympic trials and thought I might be able to do that—I was 12,” Steve Hug ’70 says, recalling how he got started as a gymnast. For some, the dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast is just that, but for Hug it would soon be a reality. In just four years, he would make the American team at the 1968 Mexico Games.

Hug had performed well in the Olympic trials and made the six-man team destined for Mexico. He worked out with the other gymnasts for 10 weeks before heading to his first Olympics. “The opening ceremonies were amazing and to say the roar of the crowd walking through the tunnel to the Stadium was mesmerizing is an understatement,” Hug recalls. “Going up to my first event in Mexico, I remember it as if it were yesterday,” he says. “I thought of everything that could go wrong—falling down walking up to the horizontal bar, missing the bar when I jumped up—until my hands were on the bar. Then I knew I was home and I was positive I would do well.” Hug finished 36th—third best on Team USA—but it was the cameradie and participating with other athletes that he remembers enjoying most. “At 16 it was fantastic, I was the youngest male US gymnast—still a record—and I had fun working out and being friends with older people at that age,” he recalls. “I was also happy to miss two months of high school.”

Growing up in southern California, gymnastics was a way of life for Hug. “Muscle Beach in Santa Monica was where we went on Sundays. It was a fantastic community and people did amazing things on the swinging rings—triple backflips, a few guys did quads,” he remembers. There was a flexible competition horizontal bar, steel parallel bars and the gymnasts would walk about 300 yards towards Venice where there was a lawn to tumble on. “We also did flips out of the swing set,” Hug says.”Every Labor Day weekend, there was a competition which very high level gymnasts would come from all over the country for—it was an amazing event hosted by Glenn Sundby.” Sundby was the founder of Modern Gymnast Magazine, the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame and co- founder of the United States Gymnastics Federation. Sundby was how local gymnasts knew what was going on in the national and international world of gymnastics. “Steve Lerner, Marks Davis and Dennis Sherman were the masters of the swinging rings, they were exceptional acrobats. When you were going for a quad flip, spinning around four times about 25 feet in the air landing on sand you had better make it.”

The spring following the Mexico Olympics, Hug returned to Chatsworth High School in Northridge and continued to train and compete. He would soon win his first US Championship taking the all-around title in the one-day competition on April 25—he would go on to win further all-around championships in 1972 and 1974. The following day on April 26, Hug marched back into the Long Beach Arena with other gymnasts from Canada, Yugoslavia, Finland, the United States and Japan for the inaugural World Cup invitational competition. Things looked promising for the talented young athlete who, after his win the day before, was tipped for a high position until he suffered an injury. A chipped bone in his elbow resulted in him exiting the competition, leaving him to watch the three-time Japanese gold medalist from the Mexico Olympics, Akinori Nakayama, take the All-Around gold.

Following the competition and his recovery, Hug was invited to Japan for the first time. “I was 17 years old, had just won the national championship, and they asked me if I wanted to go train with the best gymnasts in the world—with the Olympic champion,” he says. Thanks to an introduction by fellow gymnast Katsu Yamanaka, Hug was invited to train at Nihon University, where the head coach was Yukio Endo. Endo was the all-around champion at the 1964 Olympic Games and was by far the most respected person in gymnastics at that time. The assistant coach Takuji Hayata had also won gold medals in the rings and team all-around events at the Tokyo Olympics. Tokyo, top class gymnastics and ASIJ beckoned.

Hug (third from left) at the NCAA Gymnastic Championships in 1974 (Stanford Athletics)

“Being in Japan was a fantastic experience, I feel lucky to have been in that country at that time, when I think a lot of the traditional Japanese values were still alive,” Hug says. He describes training in Japan the greatest experience of his life. “They were in an entirely different class of gymnastics than what the world had seen, it was like if you were a musician and went to England in the ’60s. There probably will not be another time like it.” The Japanese team’s approach to training was also different. “There are so many basic things that are overlooked in this country and basic swing is one of them. They say do a stutz high, but they don’t say how to do it,” Hug told the Modern Gymnast Magazine in 1970. “You must go fast, but how do they do it they don’t say. So I’ve been learning how you do it.” In Japan, Hug found the answers he was looking for, concentrating on perfecting the basics and important body positions. He told ASIJ’s Hanabi that the Japanese gymnasts “have much more technical knowledge about the sport, and they work about twice as hard.” He went on to tell the student newspaper that “the Japanese, on the whole, are much more serious about the competition.”

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(Photo courtesy of Stanford Athletics)

It was this work ethic, vastly different to what he’d experienced in the United States, that left an impression on the young athlete. “Every gymnast in the gym I worked out at in Tokyo was very high level, everyone put out 100% every day,” he says. “We were training more than just for ourselves, we were training for the gym and for Japan. When I went to the airport to come home, everyone from the gym including coaches, the women's team, everybody came to the airport—there were about 70 of them,” he remembers. “Gymnastics was at a completely different and higher level than the rest of the world. I was so fortunate to experience that. Just last year I received an award at a gymnastics reunion event hosted by Kathy and Mike Kelly for bringing that tradition of gymnastics to the US and helping develop it here.”

Gymnastics was Hug’s focus, but as he was still in high school, his education continued at ASIJ. “What I remember about ASIJ was that the students were friendly,” he says. “I remember one teacher telling us things were really going to change when Mao died—he sure was right about that! I liked the fact that classes were more like what seemed to be a college format, for what I can remember of it.” School was only part of the day for Hug, who was training hard with Japan's elite gymnasts. “I got out of school at 12:30pm three days a week and at 11:15am two days so I wasn't there a lot. I remember the principal calling me into the office telling me I wouldn't get into college unless I showed I could carry a heavy load my senior year,” Hug recalls. “I guess he didn't realize making the Olympic team in the 11th grade was a free pass. About a month later walking down the hall he congratulated me. I said for what? It turned out I had been accepted to Stanford and didn't know it.”

Hug (third from left) with the United States Gymnastics team at Mexico in 1968

Hug would go on to be the most successful male gymnast in Stanford's history at the NCAA Individual Championships setting a school record with 11 All-America awards. Three of those wins coming as consecutive titles in the all-around competition and two in the parallel bars. For Hug himself it was always more about the sport itself rather than accolades. “When I began competing, many people complimented me on my performance and accomplishments in competition. I still get joy from people appreciating the gymnastics when it is good, but I’m not excited about the awards,” he told The Stanford Daily in 1974.

Soon, Hug's second Olympics beckoned, but the bloom had worn off the competition by the time he reached Germany in 1974. “I felt Munich had really lost the original Olympic spirit of countries sharing cultures and celebrating our time together. It was more commercial and result oriented,” he remembers. “Going into the Olympic Village in Munich it felt very cold with the concrete buildings. Since we were competing on the first day, I didn't even attend the opening ceremonies.” Perhaps that focus gave Hug an edge. “I was in better condition though and did make finals—the first American male gymnast to do so and the only one at that Olympic Games to make finals.” The competition also provided Hug an opportunity to reconnect with his old training partners. “I was in the same rotation as my coach from Japan, 1964 Olympic gold medalist Yukio Endo and competing with my friend from Tokyo Eizo Kenmotsu, the 1970 world champion—that was a good two hours to say the least.”

The Olympic spirit of peace was overshadowed by the Munich massacre in the second week of the competition, in which eleven Israeli athletes and coaches and a West German police officer at Olympic village were killed by Black September terrorists. Hug was in Switzerland when he heard the news of what had happened. “I never had an interest in other sports, but I was interested in seeing other countries, so after my completion I traveled around on one of those student train passes, staying in youth hostels around Europe for $3 a day.”

After he stopped competing, Hug taught gymnastics for a few years, opening his own gymnastic school. “Now I am a landscape architect and my Stanford education turned out to be helpful after all as I took their art classes and had a photography instructor who sent me to Ansel Adams’ workshop in Yosemite,” he recalls. Settled in Los Angeles, Hug reflects on his younger days, saying “I really cherish the time I had in Japan and ASIJ.” His early experiences prepared him well for the challenges of adulthood. “Being a competitive athlete taught me that if I could master gymnastics, I could do anything.” 

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